Every year since N.C. Central made the jump to Division I, its record has improved.
Last season started with an upset over N.C. State and ended with the Eagles’ first trip to the NCAA tournament.
Now, the challenge is to continue the trend.
But after losing four seniors and two grad students – two of them arguably their best players in Emanuel Chapman and Jeremy Ingram – developing chemistry and their identity will be the challenge. Many of the players on the team are transfers from junior colleges and other D-I schools. Some have sat out a year because of transfer rules.
“We’re just new,” coach LeVelle Moton said. “I told them in practice the other day, ‘I don’t know y’all like that. I don’t know how you’re going to act in front of 21,000 people, so therefore, my spirit is not going to be peaceful until you provide that tranquility for me.’ ”
Moton said in previous years Chapman would give him a look, and he knew everything would be OK. Ingram was the team’s go-to scorer in critical situations. He averaged 20.8 points per game last season.
Moton said he didn’t know who would be this team’s go-to scorer,
“One thing I’ve learned is those players are discovered through the battle,” he said. “Hopefully we can establish some things collectively.”
The Eagles were expected to return their top three frontcourt players and add several more, but 6-foot-8 senior forward Jay Copeland tore his ACL and MCL during a pickup game two months ago – “and any other ‘L’ that’s in your knee, too,” Moton said – and will miss the regular season.
Even with the loss of Copeland, the frontcourt is still deep and tall, qualities the Eagles lacked in previous seasons. The Eagles struggled at times to rebound against bigger teams. Adding two transfers, including 6-foot-11 center Nate Maxey, to play alongside co-captains Karamo Jawara and Jordan Parks will help.
Jawara will lead the frontcourt as he has done the past two seasons. Moton has referred to him as the point guard of the frontcourt. Jawara said his main focus is doing better than last season. He said as good as the Eagles played last season, he felt it was all for nothing when they lost in the NCAA tournament.
The school made its first appearance as a Division I program in the NCAA tournament in March, three years after it made its transition from Division II. N.C. Central won the MEAC and finished 28-6, tying a school record for most wins in a season.
The Eagles were a No. 14 seed but lost to Iowa State in the second round.
“When it comes to losing, anybody on this team can tell you I’m the worst loser ever,” Jawara said. “After that loss, it felt like we had lost every game of the season.
“Now all that matters is winning. No one gives you respect for losing.”
Parks said the same.
“We need more effort,” Parks said. “The effort was there last year, but the goal is to get past where we were last year. Our work ethic is definitely going to be higher.”
After the tournament, Moton’s name reportedly surfaced as a candidate at Marshall and Florida Atlantic.
N.C. Central gave Moton a contract extension in the offseason, worth $2 million through 2022, making him the highest-paid coach in the school’s history. The contract has an annual base salary of $250,000 for eight years.